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Boys Keep Being Born: Stories

August 15, 2001:

A melancholy fragrance reminiscent of Edna O’Brien lingers over these 13 stories. Most of Frank’s narrators are solitary, or solitary within their relationships. In the brittle, angry “Exhibit A” a woman recalls her romantic obsession with a married man who for years resisted their mutual attraction. Watching as he falls for someone else and his marriage collapses, she finally recognizes what a creep he’s been all along. Ensconced in a comfortable relationship of her own, the narrator of “The Queen of Worldly Graces” tells of an acquaintance who leaves his ever-patient, slightly shaggy live-in girlfriend for a more glamorous Parisian. Identifying with the shunned mate, the narrator feels threatened until she acknowledges that neither she nor her lover are brave enough to forego the safety of fidelity. Of the three stories told from a male viewpoint, the third, “The Guardian,” is a small masterpiece. Middle-aged Boyd learns that the legal secretary who showed him genuine kindness during his lonely childhood was his father’s mistress during the marriages to both Boyd’s mother and stepmother...Frank reaches a new depth as she explores secrets and the inability of anyone to fully capture another’s experience. Another standout is the painfully lovely “The Sounds That Arrive in the Present.” Worn-down by stress and overwork, Belle receives physical therapy from a slightly younger woman whose tale of fearlessness that caused a fatal accident reminds Belle of her own youthful zest while preparing her to live more fully in her middle-aged present.

Well-crafted and relentless.

February 24, 2002:

The philosophical, wry and mightily observant women in Joan Frank’s first-rate story collection simply tell it like it is, for better or worse.

Belle, a worn-out wife and mother, pulls into the parking lot outside her physical therapist’s office and sits frozen in one of “those strange moments of stark, silent, exhausted clarity that confront adults after turning off a car engine.” Suddenly, she has a grim vision of her life. “Every step had made sense as she’d taken it. Fall in love with the man. Welcome the child. Take the nearby job, a decent second income. But now she felt squashed by the equation’s simple total.”

Sometimes it’s the steps not taken—the “what ifs”—that haunt a character’s imagination. In one story, patient, puzzled Jane sits by herself in a movie theater, a plastic bottle full of homemade margaritas stashed in her purse, pondering the affair she didn’t have with a married man. In another story, a woman named Jean attends a birthday party for her boyfriend’s 9-year-old son and ends up tipsy on the deck, looking through a telescope at the “pocked neon chalk” of the moon. Inside, other guests are “swimming back and forth with their cares behind the sliding glass door like an exotic aquarium.”

All at once, the tinny music of these earthly dramas strikes her as comic “under the patient, blind white pour of moon and stars...Jean rarely thinks about the fact that her life takes place on a round planet, coated with a breathable atmosphere. She wishes she could remember that fact more, because she guesses it might make problems easier to face, given their hilarious perspective.”

But the comfort Jean takes in her cosmic insignificance isn’t enough to justify having a child of her own. “In spite of all the brave poetry and music and heroes and urgencies of high school teachers, it seemed too terrible a world to represent clear-eyed to any child. She could help other people’s children once they arrived, but she could never bring herself to look into the eyes of any being she might have summoned here and then say, Well, this is it, like some landlord waving at an unwholesome rental.”

“Well, this is it” would make an apt subtitle for “Boys Keep Being Born.” With an abiding, watchful intelligence, Frank’s stories acknowledge both the perfidy and the disappointments of lives lived with all the best intentions. In other hands, this might have been excruciating, but Frank’s characters aren’t the type to sit around and mope. Rita, a hapless, recently divorced 46-year-old, picks up and moves to Paris, where she falls for a darkly handsome, duplicitous Frenchman. (“Why did Frenchmen always have such good hair?”) In her heart, she must know he can’t be trusted, but for Rita anything is better than playing it safe, “practicing in the waiting room of the life she hoped to lead.”

The best stories are filled with dead-on details and sophisticated character studies of people “old enough to have seen some things and not too old to have given up on others.”

In the elegant, moving story called “The Sounds That Arrive in the Present,” the weary Belle finds solace by driving out to a little farm town at lunchtime and losing herself in the patchwork of sounds that envelops her—wind chimes, bird song, snippets of remembered conversation, a comforting chorus that reminds her of her childhood. “All that matters then is being quiet, and picking out as many sounds as she can...The wind is a silken quilt over the whole of it, the voice over all the other voices. Everything came down to this.”

It’s a fitting metaphor for the job of the writer, tuning in to the many voices of those with stories to tell, and then letting them speak for themselves.
Sarah Ferguson is a writer and critic who lives in Brooklyn.